Let’s Talk About Avatar’s Weird-Ass Legacy

A new trailer of Avatar: The Way of Water dropped this morning and while there is still little known about the upcoming sequel 13 years in the making I think we can all agree that this actually looks pretty awesome. But it got me thinking: is there a film with a stranger legacy than the original Avatar?

Let’s recap. Avatar was James Cameron’s follow up to 1997’s Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time at least until 2009 when we were all introduced to Pandora. The story is essentially Pocahontas with blue aliens known as the Na’vi. Humans try to strip their planet of the cleverly-named resource unobtanium. However, one soldier, Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington), is able to learn and live among the Na’vi via an avatar and in the process learns to love their way of life and the beautiful alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) before abandoning his race and becoming one with the Na’vi. The plot is simple, one we’ve seen in many forms over the years, but that simplicity was elevated by groundbreaking visual effects and 3-D immersion. It’s also known for having the second greatest blue Sully in cinematic history.

The film was a mega hit. It surpassed Titanic as the highest grossing film of all time. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning three, and famously lost both Best Picture and Best Director to Kathryn Bigelow’s (Cameron’s ex-wife) The Hurt Locker, which remained the lowest grossing Best Picture winner of all time up until Nomadland won in 2021 following a global pandemic skewed the 2020 box office totals. But that wasn’t all. Despite the fact that the film was a box office smash and consensus visual spectacle, the film still received mixed, ableit mostly positive, reviews from both critics an audiences, the plot’s lack of originality receiving much of the heat. Roger Ebert compared the film to the first time he saw Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowships of the Ring. The film even famously caused thousands of people to exit the theater in a state of depression that the film was over and people were no longer immersed in Pandora. From CNN:

(CNN) — James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.

On the fan forum site “Avatar Forums,” a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. The topic became so popular last month that forum administrator Philippe Baghdassarian had to create a second thread so people could continue to post their confused feelings about the movie.

“I wasn’t depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy ,” Baghdassarian said. “But I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don’t have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed.”

After about a year of Avatar-mania, it just…went away. Around that time the MCU was in Phase One but obviously grew more and more popular as time passed. Star Wars received a franchise reboot in 2015 with The Force Awakens. While Avatar certainly wasn’t the first 3-D film ever made it was the peak of an annoying trend in Hollywood where almost major blockbuster had the option of watching in 3-D, a.k.a. paying three times as much as a normal ticket. The emergence of streaming services and rise of social media gave us all more content from the convenience of our homes. Reboots and sequels constantly dominated the box office and as time went on, Avatar was just gone. Sure you can find it streaming on FX every now and then and there was the occasional parody or obscure pop culture reference, notably this SNL sketch with Ryan Gosling from 2017:

It was like the most popular film in over a decade left no long-term cultural impact whatsoever. Seriously, how many people do you know list Avatar as their favorite movie? How many characters name’s do you even remember? Do you even remember who Sam Worthington is? Or that Sigourney Weaver was a ghost the whole time?

Case in point: google “Avatar GIF” and the first six images that pop up are from a TV show that aired BEFORE the film even came out!

Part of this is likely due to the gap between original and sequel. James Cameron has been openly talking about his plans for sequels since the first film came out. A pair of sequels were announced to come out in 2015 and 2017 but writing delays caused those to be pushed out. In 2016 Cameron announced that four Avatar sequels would be coming out in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023. That obviously didn’t happen due to delays in writing, production, and post-production. In fact, Avatar: The Way of Water began shooting in 2017 and wrapped production in 2018, on schedule for a 2020 release date. Then the pandemic hit and Disney (which owns the rights after it bought Fox in 2019) announced plans for more Star Wars and MCU content to be released in the coming years, a.k.a. box office competition, which led to our current release date of December 16, 2022.

During the development process we would get updates every now and then but the reports were always in regards to some kind of a delay in production and that the release date had been pushed back. In fact, James Cameron was George R. R. Martin before it was cool. When we got our first look at the footage a few months back in actually started to settle in that an Avatar sequel was actually coming. I’d be lying if I said I had the date circled on my calendar. To me it was always kind of a “Sure, I’ll go see it when it’s out” kind of thing, not like the thousands of Americans who’ve been prescribed Pandoraphyl, recommended by nine out ten therapists.

Frankly, I still feel the same way. While I’ll definitely go see it in theaters on as big a screen as I can, I won’t be camping outside the theater for a ticket. Yes, I want to see it but FOMO is a very real part of pop culture events like this. Not seeing this in theaters will be like the guy who DVR’d the finale to Game of Thrones or who missed Avengers: Endgame because he hasn’t seen Ant-Man yet. I’ll go, I’ll probably like, not love, it and I’ll post my review here. But still, it’s just weird that Avatar is going to be a thing again.

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